How Many Miles to the Goal?

“Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas.
Take your next trip in kilometers.”
– George Carlin

The November issue (I kid you not) of Consumer Reports has just arrived with a good article about frequent flyer programs. Their title is “Frequent Flyer Secrets Revealed” – the sort of title that both entices and repels me. It is a good article, researched with the thoroughness typical of CR. I will baldly summarize their distilled points here. If you are a very eager frequent flyer, you will want to find the complete article.

Look for this issue at the newsstand.

Look for this issue at the newsstand.

A question worth considering is whether playing the frequent flyer game is worth the effort. They point out that the cost of the program is factored into every ticket you buy, so you are already participating financially and might as well make the most of it. I disagree, however, if you fly only occasionally, and if your destinations do not usually fit within the service area of one or two airlines. If you only fly from Boston to Chicago once a year, you will be hard pressed to earn a free ticket before your miles expire. But if you do fly often and can concentrate on a preferred airline, by all means do collect miles.

Here are CR’s nine guiding principles (their rules, my comments).

  1. Try to book early. Most airlines put flights on sale 330 days in advance, some less. You probably have the best selection of seats when the flights first become available. But airlines do change their availability through the months depending on what they want to boost. Don’t assume that “free” seats will never show up if you don’t see them ten months out.
  2. A quick calculation will tell whether "free" flights are a good value. Photo by Dgilder,

    A quick calculation will tell whether “free” flights are a good value. Photo by Dgilder,

    Check the cash amount. It would be foolish to spend miles when you could buy the same flights for a low cash price. The CR rule of thumb is to divide the cash cost of a ticket (total number of cents) by the number of program miles you would have to spend for the same flights. If the result is higher than one cent per mile spent, that is a fair cost. A $250.00 ticket purchased for 25,000 miles just breaks even. Buying a $500.00 ticket for the same miles would be a better value at two cents per mile.

  3. Consider upgrades. Spending your miles to upgrade a cheap purchased ticket might be easier to do and a better value (assuming you agree that the difference between coach and the front of the plane is worth what they ask). But not every purchased ticket can be upgraded with miles. Check your airline’s program.
  4. Call the airline. Yes, there will be a fee if you buy a ticket after actually talking to a person, but you can learn a great deal about what is possible by asking a few questions. (See 3 above.) Some things can only be booked by phone, but if that’s what you need it will be worth the cost.
  5. Get a card. Signing up for your airline’s credit card can get you a big chunk of miles in short order, often enough to buy a domestic ticket. The cards often exempt you and companions on the same reservation from paying baggage fees. If you belong to several programs you might do better with a card which allows you to accumulate points and transfer them to a particular program when you are ready to use them.
  6. Don’t hoard miles. Miles can expire. Programs can change their rules at any time. Saving for someday can lead to big disappointment. Know your program and your balance.
  7. Check out partner deals. Hotels, car rental companies, retailers, and other airlines all offer miles to members. Consider directing your purchases to your program’s partners.
  8. Look for elevated status. Being Gold, Platinum or any other precious metal status brings benefits. The airlines seem to be inflating status very freely now; you might qualify. Of course this demotes all the vanilla members, but the elite marketing ploy works.
  9. Divide to conquer. The number of “free” seats on each flight is limited. If there are more than two of you traveling together you might do better flying on different planes.

Please forgive me for leaning so heavily on another source this week. I hope you find this information helpful. I thank Consumer Reports for their usual excellent summary. Next week I will write from my own resources.

Boundaries divide. Travel unites.

2 October 2014

About Travel Unites

A travel agent since 1994, I want people to get together for greater understanding across boundaries.
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